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This is the time of year for traditions, and one of my favorite Christmas week pastimes is spending a day in the woods with the beagles. There probably isn’t a better way to unwind after a busy fall than to turn the hounds loose on a fresh track and just listen to them work on a convoluted bunny trail.
Most folks who have never hunted with beagles think that the dogs chase down and kill the rabbit, but that is rarely if ever the case. Any unwounded hare can outrun all the beagles ever bred, and in most cases, the rabbit will be 50 to 100 yards ahead of the dogs no matter how fast and hard they push. In fact, whenever the dogs get too close the rabbit will put on a burst of speed and disappear into the distance, leaving the over-eager beagles in the dust. They’ll find him again eventually if trailing conditions are right, but it may be 20 minutes or more before the dogs finally catch up.
When conditions favor the dogs (good scenting conditions, plenty of rabbits and minimal snow) you can expect to have a serious shindig in the woods with plenty of action and lots of good dog work. These are the days you don’t want to miss; the dogs will be running fast and tight, the rabbits will be numerous and active and the shooting will be phenomenal. You can’t expect every day in the rabbit woods to be that good, but when you stop halfway through and realize most hunters have their limits already, that’s the time to realize your good fortune.
Of course, what normally happens is that a rabbit will take the dogs on a merry chase out to and even beyond the horizon, with plenty of long, slow periods of boredom as the contest takes the animals are out of sight and hearing. The best of dogs will eventually be heard coming back, hot on the trail, and then it’s time to get seriously ready for a fast shot.
If you’ve learned from experience, you’ll know that shot size, choke and barrel length are of little concern on rabbits, including the low-brass field loads I use to take 50 to 100 rabbits annually. The reason for that is I only take close, guaranteed shots, often at rabbits at less than 20 yards. In fact, lately so many rabbits have shown up that I think we’re enjoying one of their somewhat annual cycles, in which the woods will be nearly empty of them one day and packed shoulder-to-shoulder the next. When rabbit numbers are high, stop kidding yourself, get a license and give it a try.
The procedure when hunting with beagles is simple and straightforward. Once the dogs strike trail on the rabbit (with the initial encounter punctuated by exciting barking and howling) the hunter should immediately head for that spot and wait. Rabbits are known to run in long, wide circles, but sooner or later they will return to the spot where they were jumped. This may take 5 minutes or two hours, depending on the conditions, the rabbit, the dogs and events beyond anyone’s control. Most chases will last for 30 minutes or less if all hands know what they are doing. Five or six experienced hunters can rack up a limit of hares in no time because they know their dogs, their game and the terrain. It’s only when faced with the unusual or the unexpected that a run can last all day.
Another way to take winter hares is to just grab a .22 rifle or shotgun and start walking. Head for the thickest alders and cedars you can find and spend the day plodding through the swamps and lowland thickets till you jump a rabbit. In most cases the rabbit will run a short way and stop, normally well within range of the first shot, so do what you can to keep your eye on the bunny till you can get a good shot at him. A .22 is excellent for sniping rabbits after they have stopped, but a shotgun is good if you are quick-witted and can get off a shot or two when you first jump the animal.
Believe it or not, the worst weather is often the best time to go for rabbits. For this reason, plan to get out there when the snow is blowing hard or when it’s raining or very windy. Snowshoe hares stay above ground no matter what the weather and will often be found frolicking around in the woods on the coldest, stormiest of nights. (Actually, they may be running for their lives from foxes, owls or coyotes, but it sure looks like frolicking!)
Any time you can get into the woods is a good time for a hare hunt. Maine’s hare season opens Oct. 1 and ends March 31, which stands as one of the longest open seasons on a game animal in the U.S. Somewhere in all those days you are going to find yourself at home with nothing to do. Grab your favorite gun or bow and head into the evergreens and see what adventures away you. There is plenty to see and do in the winter woods even if you don’t run into a rabbit on a given day, so don’t let these golden winter opportunities get away from you.
I have never had a bad time on a rabbit hunt and invariably come home with a good bag of hares. At the best of times (the peak of the rabbit cycle) you can take your limit of four rabbits in about an hour. During leaner times you may hunt all day for a shot, but it’s an enjoyable way to spend some spare time and, for me at least, it always beats staying home and doing chores!
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